In Family Happiness, Laurie Colwin addresses the following issues: Is the happiness ascribed to the human group known as the family a special kind of happiness? Is it based on appearance rather than reality? Is it just an illusion, a superficial quality rather than a profound, recognizable, and indisputable characteristic? While Colwin does not pose these questions directly, they underlie the entire novel. All the characters, even minor ones, add to the meaning of the story; every scene, every conversation is related to the subject suggested by the title. Colwin does not offer answers either. Her tone is light, amused, and detached. She offers facts about the family members whom she describes, but in an impersonal way, observing them as people who knew them might do.

The nature of the particular family with which she is concerned makes obvious the answers to the questions that Colwin implies. The patriarch of the family is aloof, eccentric, and high-minded. The matriarch, Wendy, is in awe of her older son, annoyed by her younger son, and utterly dependent on her daughter for confirmation that Polly is perfect—and by reflection, that she herself is perfect—even though Wendy is usually fretful, forgetful, confused, domineering, and fussy. By extension, the marriages of their three children are similarly dictated by the personalities of the people concerned. Thus Paul and Beate are prominent professionals, grave, solemn, and rigid; Henry, Jr.,...

(The entire section is 566 words.)